My definition of philosophy

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I came up with that definition of philosophy (thanks for the help). Not really happy with it, but: "Originally (in antiquity and the middle ages) philosophy was the search for knowledge for its own sake, in a very general sense: so it included physics and other kinds of natural science. In the modern world we have a more narrow notion of philosophy, where it means dealing with fundamental questions, especially in ethics, metaphysics and epistemology."

Here's the German version in case you're curious: "Ursprünglich (in der Antike und im Mittelalter) war Philosophie die Suche nach Wissen für das Wissen selbst, also mit keinem anderen Zweck, im sehr allgemeinen Sinn: also gehörten Physik und andere Naturwissen-schaften zur Philosophie. In der modernen Zeit haben wir eher einen begrenzten Begriff der Philosophie, so dass sie nur mit grundlegenden Fragen zu tun hat, vor allem in Ethik, Metaphysik und Epistemologie."

Omar Ali-de-Unzaga on 23 January 2013

Of course I am a dwarf and I

Of course I am a dwarf and I am not even standing on your solders, but I'd say that any definition of philosophy (ancient and medieval at least) has to say that it was not about knowledge for its own sake, but knowledge to attain virtue. I guess you could say here virtue, or purification, or liberation from matter, or homoiosis theoi/ al-tashabbuh bi'l-ilah or things like that

In other words: "To think, to ask, to behave"

What do you think?

In reply to by Omar Ali-de-Unzaga

Antony Stabilius on 13 February 2013

Were some of those

Were some of those pre-socratics, for example, primarily after virtue, liberation from matter and/or purity? Or in their philosophical activities were they interested in attaining knowledge because they really, really love knowledge for its own sake?

In reply to by Antony Stabilius

Peter Adamson on 16 February 2013

Good point. I think that at

Good point. I think that at least some Presocratics have a more theoretical, knowledge-for-its-own-sake interest in accounting for the world around them (they are studying "nature" in the broadest sense). Some but not all Presocratics did talk about virtue, though, for instance Heraclitus and Democritus. It's interesting that even the more "natural philosopher" type Presocratics do use moral and legal metaphors for nature, though, e.g. the idea about the elements "paying retribution" to one another. So it may be that there was always a background idea that human ethical life is supposed somehow to mirror the justice of cosmic causal interaction.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Antony Stabilius on 16 February 2013

Perhaps like everybody that's

Perhaps like everybody that's been made aware of this rich intellectual history it depresses me we don't have more writings and (as you point out) we're tortured with surviving lists of what didn't make it. Much chance they'll ever turn up more?? I'd murder for Aristotle's dialogs that "flowed like a river of gold", which may not be virtuous of me but would be for the greater good.

In reply to by Antony Stabilius

Peter Adamson on 16 February 2013

Well, they have found more

Well, they have found more even in the last 25 years (the Strasbourg Empedocles) and as techniques for scanning and reading things like charred manuscripts, more things may turn up. New texts turn up more often though for medieval philosophy including in Arabic.

To be fair though it's not like many of us have read most of what still exists! So perhaps we shouldn't be greedy. On the other hand I would join you in the dock to have a sizable collection of Chrysippus...


Peter Adamson on 24 January 2013

Firstly I'm happy to join you

Firstly I'm happy to join you as being a fellow dwarf. If we get 5 more and someone to play Snow White, we could be in a movie!

Secondly I definitely agree that in the ancient and medieval traditions philosophy is about how to live, as Hadot has argued. The question is whether that is essential to what philosophy is. It's not only very recently after the professionalization of philosophy that life and philosophical activity have come apart; think of Hume's discussion of leaving skepticism behind when you leave the study. But I guess someone might say that philosophy should involve the question of how to live even if it doesn't always.


Greg Bryant on 13 June 2013

Your definition of

Your definition of philosophy, I think unintentionally, reinforces modern philosophy's distance from modern science.

You say that originally philosophy "included physics and other kinds of natural science."

But in "the modern world we have a more narrow notion of philosophy, where it means dealing with fundamental questions" ...

... in other words, either science does not deal with fundamental questions (if we're to distinguish it from philosophy), or philosophy is perhaps just unconcerned with the natural sciences. I've listened to all your podcasts: you really don't sound like you believe that.

In reply to by Greg Bryant

Peter Adamson on 14 June 2013

Hi there,Well, this was

Hi there,

Well, this was offered as an historical and social observation rather than a view about how things should ideally be. I think nowadays it is true that people think of "science" as using the empirical method, whereas philosophy is more about conceptual analysis. (In fact I was struck by an episode of the podcast Philosophy Bites, in which they interviewed philosophers and asked "hat is philosophy?" -- a lot of people said, "philosophy is the study of non-empirical truth" or something to that effect.) But of course even on that view there are intimate connections between the two enterprises, since science needs philosophy to reflect on its method and to clear up conceptual confusion, and philosophy needs to take account of empirical facts which provide a constraint to speculation about things like consciousness, for instance.

But you're right, I myself do like the fact that ancient up to early modern philosophy was so intimately connected to "science," and the story of how these drifted apart is one I want to talk about later on in the podcast. 



Greg Bryant on 29 June 2013

Hi, Yes, anyone would agree,


Yes, anyone would agree, defining contemporary philosophy as separated from science is reasonable.

You wrote that modern philosophy is 'about conceptual analysis', and I assume you understand that this is also the bread-and-butter of woking scientists. In the 20th century, it is scientists who built the conceptual apparatus for their work, and the criteria for intelligible theories, not philosophers.

Scientists try to explain these hard-won advances in natural philosophy to the 'lay public', which includes philosophers. So, Einstein explains relativity, Bohr explains quantum mechanics, Pauling explains quantum chemistry, Feynman explains QED, Chomsky explains biolinguistics, Carroll explains developmental biology ... the list is endless.

But you asserted that there's a dialogue of some kind. This would surprise most scientists, and you really need to demonstrate it. I think it would be tough to make the case that any particular non-scientist 20th-century philosopher had an impact on results in the hard sciences. Separation has its costs, including relevance.

Still, I'm very excited to see how you approach the emergence of this division!


In reply to by Greg Bryant

Peter Adamson on 30 June 2013

Hi there,Well, there is

Hi there,

Well, there is certainly a dialogue in one direction namely from science to philosophy - a huge amount of contemporary philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition, is so science-related that one could often think one was at a psychology or cognitive science lecture while attending a philosophy talk. But I think you are more skeptical about scientists listening to philosophers. Probably it's right that the traffic is much more the other way but I do know of philosophers of mind cooperating with psychologists to design experiments, for instance. Many philosophers of physics are also pretty tightly connected to the physics community, and same for biology, etc. These are very technical areas of philosophy though so they don't impinge much on broader awareness. But there is definitely a dialogue going on - in fact I suspect if you wanted to point to one really significant development in professional philosophy in the English-language world in the last 20-30 years or so, it would be exactly the closer cooperation of philosophers with scientists and mathematicians.

As for a philosopher from the 20th century who has impacted science: the computer would not have been invented without work by figures like Frege (ok he's 19th c.), Gödel, Russell, and Turing. Or so I gather.



In reply to by Peter Adamson

Greg Bryant on 1 June 2014

Hello Peter, I want to thank

Hello Peter,

I want to thank you, again, for your exceptionally good podcasts.

So, you wrote:

"As for a philosopher from the 20th century who has impacted science: the computer would not have been invented without work by figures like Frege (ok he's 19th c.), Gödel, Russell, and Turing. Or so I gather."

Neither computer engineering, nor computer science, are part of the natural sciences, despite rather embarrassing claims by some professors. Yes, computers are used in the sciences, but all available technology was always recruited for science, long before Frege.

Computing makes use of results from the natural sciences, of course, and results from the formal sciences (take Frege and Turing). But engineers live in constructed, formal worlds, in an overheated economy, and rarely have time, or interest, in the slow hard work of the natural sciences.

To understand this, I recommend the 'debate' between Google's 'Chief Scientist' (who has no experience in the natural sciences) and Noam Chomsky (who has transformed many traditional philosophical topics by moving them into the natural sciences).

I'd be interested to see if you could spot echoes of this important debate in the past. You have a very good eye for this sort of thing. I assume you've read Chomsky's "Cartesian Linguistics", because I've seen evidence of some of the arguments in earlier podcasts. It may just be an indirect influence.

As for Frege, it's becoming clearer that his separation of psychology from logic did great harm to both. But we can discuss that 1,000 podcasts from now.

All the best,

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